nonprofit provocateur

Archive for the ‘Nonprofit Careers’ Category

Marc Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, has just discovered that unpaid internships as commonly practiced may be illegal. He’s none too happy about this state of affairs, judging by the lengthy post that appeared on his blog over the weekend, and some in the nonprofit world have taken note. With good reason: unpaid internships have become a sort of de facto point of entry for many nonprofit careers, and a good number of organizations rely heavily on them to get help from bright, motivated young people at a cost these organizations might not be able to afford otherwise: free. Naturally, the legality of this is a concern.

I’ll leave the issues of legality to the legal experts. However, regardless of what any such experts say, a more important question that nonprofits who are committed to social change need to ask themselves is whether or not they should use unpaid interns. Does this practice further or hinder the pursuit of social change?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be a resounding, Well, duh! Of course we should continue to use unpaid interns if we can. After all, the nonprofit sector is well known for not having enough money to do all that needs to be done, and the work done by the sector is very often of the utmost import – urgently helping those in the tumultuous aftermath of a disaster or war, helping those on the verge of starvation or without water or medicine or homes, working to restore balance to the environment. And yes, funding is often a major concern, especially today. That said, the nonprofit sector still must question whether they should rely so heavily on unpaid interns, as a matter of principle.

The only way to break into many fields – and the nonprofit sector is increasingly one of them – is through an internship, paid or not. Usually not. While the experience gained is often invaluable, the problem becomes who is able to gain this experience. Or rather, who isn’t able. Unless supported by the Bank of Mom and Dad, many kids can’t afford to dedicate 20+ hours a week—on top of school—without some sort of pay beyond “college credit.” Those are usually the kids who already have part-time jobs, taken not so much with career development in mind, but for survival and to help pay for the necessities of school.

Which means that the kids who are able to afford months of work for nothing more than “credit” and “experience” are often the kids who come from middle class or affluent backgrounds, those with parents who can afford to support them while they work to get their careers off the ground. Which means that relying on unpaid internships as a de facto requirement for entry into a particular field only cements class divisions within that field – as well as racial ones, as the two are inarguably linked. An entire post was even dedicated to the subject on “Stuff White People Like,” a satirical blog that pokes fun at just such divisions between race and class.

My question to nonprofits is this: if you are serious about creating social change and are in the business of making the world a more just, fairer and all-around more egalitarian place, should you contribute to a practice that makes it more difficult for those who aren’t born privileged to get a leg up in the world, effectively hindering your goal of change? Because the interns of today are the most poised to become the leaders of tomorrow. If you doubt that such a practice can hamper social change efforts, look at your boards and higher level executive staff. Do they honestly resemble the diverse, socially just world we all want to create?

Yes, it’s difficult to undo a firmly entrenched practice, especially in this day when funding is so tight. One solution would be to build such internships into funding requests at the outset. Surely there are more solutions as yet to be thought of. Besides, if we as a sector can’t come up with creative alternatives to this, how are to take on the larger social justice issues with any seriousness and real hope for change?

Social change isn’t easy. If it were, with over a million nonprofits striving to do good, we would have made much more progress than we have. That’s not to say it is impossible, however. But it does require an unflinching honesty and unwavering commitment to instilling an ethos of social justice into all that we do, from the entry level ground positions and up.


So you may be thinking: it’s great and all to view myself as an advocate for my cause – no matter my official job title – and to approach my work as part of building a movement for social change, but how do I do that? What does that even really mean?

At least, that’s what I’ve been thinking since I decided to start this blog. So I began researching.

One of the best resources I’ve found so far is the Building Movement Project, an organization whose goal is to build a strong social justice ethos into the nonprofit sector, strengthen the role of nonprofit organizations in the United States as sites of democratic practice, and promote nonprofit groups as partners in building movement for progressive social change.

Sounds awesome, right?

In particular, they offer several reports and resources that I’ve found useful as a starting point for generating ideas on how to incorporate social change into nonprofit work. Over the next few posts I’m going to explore ways in which the transformation process outlined below can be applied not just at the organizational level, but also on a more personal level to an individual’s work within the sector.

The Transformation Process:

  1. Learning: (a) Identifying and learning about the root causes of issues/problems faced by the organization’s constituents. (b) Identifying and learning about ways to address these issues/problems.
  2. Awareness: Understanding the larger structures of power and how these structures operate, as well as examining the way power operates within the organization.
  3. Vision: Articulating the type of world those in the organization believe is possible for the constituents they serve, and examining the organization’s role in moving towards that world.
  4. Strategy: Outlining the steps the organization needs to take to implement its vision, especially as it relates to building the power, influence, and visibility of its constituents.
  5. Action: Identifying and implementing a method for moving the organization into social change work that suits the organization and its constituents, while maintaining the organization’s capacity to continue providing its core services.
  6. Reflection: Evaluating the results of the action(s) taken by examining what worked, what did not, and what will be needed to improve upon the plan in the future (including what new learning and strategies are needed).

Social Service and Social Change: A Process Guide

Making Social Change: Case Studies of Nonprofit Service Providers

Organizational Assessment

Not too long ago, a couple of friends and I were having coffee when discussion invariably turned to current affairs – healthcare reform, the economy, etcetera. Me being me, I naturally got a bit… uh, passionate about things like the destruction of the middle class and the rising numbers of those living in poverty and those who are homeless. My friends are used to such passionate outbursts from me – I’ve always been something of a social activist (according to them). Indeed, one friend said to me that day, “You know, since you’re so passionate, you might think about going into advocacy.” The other agreed.

It wasn’t such a far out suggestion. Yet, something about it bugged me.

Later, when I got home and found my friend’s harmless suggestion still tugging at me, I posed the following question to myself:

Since I am so passionate, would I really be better suited for advocacy? Is advocacy only for those whose job title is that of Advocate?

And I got it. As soon as I framed the question in that way, I instantly understood why my friend’s suggestion bothered me so. You see, both of my friends work in the same area as I do: development and communications. And they both work for direct providers of social services to low income people in need. And yet, they thought someone with my passion about the issues should become an Advocate. Implying that advocacy was really something to be done only by those who bear that job title.

Which struck me as odd. Perhaps I am overly idealistic, but I—like my friends—got into this work because I was idealistic and I wanted my career to Have Meaning, I wanted to be involved in something Bigger Than Myself and I wanted to Make A Difference. Dare I say, I—and my friends—wanted to Change The World, or at the very least Make The World A Better Place. You know, the BIG IDEAS that are best expressed with capital letters.

But I understand why idealism and passion very often get put aside: social service is hard work, what with grueling hours and low pay and not enough staff to do all that needs to be done and not enough or adequate supplies with which to do it and ever increasing competition amongst organizations for less and less money to deliver solutions to problems that seem unsolvable. When an organization is trying its hardest just to stay financially solvent, and its employees are trying to maintain under that pressure, who has time to get passionate and think about—let alone pursue—something as vast and complicated as social change? Who has time to advocate when there’s already someone whose job it is to do just that?

As understandable as it is, that mindset won’t bring about change. Obviously, as it hasn’t done so yet. I propose that the only real way to create change is for you and I—emerging nonprofit leaders, next gen, whatever—to become passionate advocates for our causes and organizations, regardless of our job titles. Advocacy shouldn’t be a job solely for Advocates—we should think of everyone in an organization as an advocate, and we should see our organizations as movements. Maybe a smaller part of a larger one, but a movement all the same.

Which is the point of this blog: to explore both ideas and tangible ways in which nonprofit work can be approached from the perspective of movement building, the nonprofit itself viewed as a force for social change rather than stand alone organization. Maybe, perhaps, to help expand the beliefs of what a nonprofit is capable of, and of what we, as the individual motors who power the nonprofit sector, are capable of.

Ultimately, I refuse to give up on my ideals; social change IS possible. Not only that, but it’s inevitable. And we cannot wait for the recession to end or for our organizations to be fully funded or even fully staffed before we take action. Nor do we need others around us to “get it” — whether you work in communications or as a volunteer organizer or as an assistant—in whatever capacity—you can absolutely view yourself as a change agent who is part of a larger movement, whether your Executive Director does or not. Together, we as individuals must work to create change, and the time to do so is now. It is my hope that this space will be a place for those of a like mind to share and be inspired to do just that.

nonprofit provocateur :: instigating social change, one agent at a time

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